The first installment in a four-part obituary on the season that was.
The 2012-13 season ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.
That whimper came in the form of meaningless smack-down of the playoff-bound Boston Celtics eager to rest their aged starters. The win left the Raptors with a record of 34-48, good for 10th place in the Eastern Conference. The team sat equidistant between playoff contention and lottery salvation.
A mid-season trade for Rudy Gay saddled the Raptors with a capped out roster for the foreseeable future with little room to grow or improve. The team most resembled a mismatch of puzzle pieces originating from different sets. Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson fit the “win-now” puzzle, whereas youngsters like Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross represented pieces for the future. It didn’t help that they held no picks in the upcoming draft.
No picks, capped out, limited upside, non-playoff team. In short, the Raptors were on the treadmill of mediocrity.
To the Raptors’ credit, management recognized that things were broken and change was swift. A month after the season ended, long-time general manager Bryan Colangelo was mercifully sacked. His former disciple Masai Ujiri took over his desk, carrying with him a newly branded Executive of the Year trophy. Ujiri was joined former AEG mogol Tim Leiweke who captained the new regime. The two fresh faces, flashing matching bright smiles and even brighter visions for the franchise, served as the new leaders going forward. Like many before them, they sold the franchise on borrowed hope.
Leiweke’s message to the fans was simple, yet bold: winning a championship is the goal
Those days are over. We won’t create unrealistic expectations. But I’ll tell you this: we’re going to get out of 7/11. It’s not a place you want to live. We want to win a championship, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do, no matter how much hard work, no matter what the resources, we have the people, we have a leader in Masai, and we have a culture now, within the Raptors where we’re headed into a direction where we’re going to be proud of this organization again.
Ujiri’s message was less direct, perhaps frustratingly so. Many thought he tipped his hand with the Andrea Bargnani trade. To the uninitiated, jettisoning a former number one pick in the prime of his career for spare change and cap flexibility was a clear sign of rebuilding. His first move as general manager was to foreshadow things to come. The old guard — Lowry, Gay, Johnson, Fields (hopefully) and potentially even DeRozan — everything must go!
Except, Ujiri wisely stood pat, and preached patience. From day one, he was dogged by questions of DeRozan and Gay’s redundancy on the wing, building through the draft, and the future viability etc etc. Fans, and media members alike were voracious, hoping to hear Ujiri hint firesale, but none came. His line has been consistent:
It’s going to take patience, it’s going to take will, I want to instill a passion to win. Guys, the overall goal in the NBA is to win a championship, that has to be the overall goal. (via: the Toronto Star)
I want us to have growth, big-time growth, and improvements so that we can actually known what we have on this team. (via: the National Post)
We are committed to changing the culture on and off the court. We are going to build the right way. (via: Yahoo Sports)
Masai’s plea for patience fell on deaf ears, at least around these parts. A fanbase is like a child — ask for patience, expect a tantrum.
While the Raptors laid dormant during the arduous summer months, forums and comment sections were abuzz with trade discussions. Lines were drawn in the sand. On one side stood the faithful, those loyal to Ujiri’s message, those willing to look on the bright side with flawed players like DeRozan, Gay and Lowry. They were opposed by a full-on tank brigade, an embattled bunch that demanded a Sam Hinkie-esque leader for their coup d’etat. The ESPN trade machine was their guillotine — all loyalists must go.
In retrospect, their fight was senseless, as both sides shared the same goal in mind. Their rage was likely a product of sheer boredom. Ujiri was going to do what he was going to do. There were no revelations to be had in mindless forums and doting blog posts. Everyone who participated in those discussions really only had each other to argue with because they were the only ones who cared about the Raptors. Everyone else was either wrapped up in summer plans, or busy gawking at the Blue Jays’ debacle. Pour one out for the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays.
As the summer drew to a close with little fanfare, it became clear that the team was to be led by last season’s wing tandem of DeRozan and Gay. Thus, the roster was filled out by spare parts.
With limited flexibility and assets on hand, Ujiri was forced to take fliers on hand-me-downs. D.J. Augustin, Dwight Buycks and Julyan Stone formed a three-headed back-up point guard by committee. Tyler Hansbrough was to serve as the energy big off the bench who couldn’t generate offense (or watchable basketball, as it turned out). One-dimensional shooters like Austin Daye and Steve Novak we’re brought aboard to provide spacing in the occasional small-ball lineup.
The preseason provided fans a first glance at the “newly formed” Toronto Raptors. Much to everyone’s surprise, although the roster was largely unchanged, the Raptors adopted a different form to its former self. Jonas Valanciunas, hot off an impressive summer league outing (whatever that means), and a solid Eurobasket performance, flashed an improved post-game and wielded 15 pounds of added muscle. Not to be outdone, DeRozan dazzled with some post-moves of his own, which in turn led to more trips to the free-throw line. The addition of Nick Nurse to Dwane Casey’s coaching staff netted positive early returns. There was a cautious optimism surrounding the team.
Except, this history leaves out the elephant in the room — Rudy Gay.
Gay’s performance during the preseason was right in-line with his career tendencies. Gay liked operating with the ball in his hands, and he favored pulling up from the basketball dead-zone: the dreaded “midrange.”
As they were on just about everything, the fanbase was split as to Gay’s role on the team. His supporters pointed to the Raptors’ near-.500 record since his arrival in Toronto, and the starting five’s impressive +/- figures across a limited sample size (4th in Net Rating in 2012-13). His detractors pointed to his aversion to passing, and fetish for the long pull-up jumpshot which manifested in sub-par efficiency numbers. Both sides did agree on one thing — Gay’s gigantic contract was a cap-killer.
One big caveat loomed at the end of every discussion revolving Gay — the famed corrective vision procedure. During the offseason, it was revealed that Gay had laser eye surgery to correct his previously myopic eyes. As per Gay’s own words, “it was terrible. I could hardly get my license.” The logic was that the procedure would improve his accuracy, which would in-turn improve his performance.
Ultimately, Gay looked, played and performed as he always had. He was the same. However, the faintest promise of a better, more efficient Gay was tantalizing, which likened him to the rest of his teammates. Everyone involved with the team — be it Lowry (injuries, attitude problems), DeRozan (similar to Gay, defensive woes), to Casey (hadn’t accomplished much in the past two seasons) — was both cursed and blessed with the veil of uncertainty. No wonder Ujiri wanted a better look to assess what he had.
From the outset, they were all cognizant of their participation in a large-scale game of musical chairs. It was a farce. Everyone knew that the music would stop at any moment. Marc Stein of ESPN quoted one source saying that “anyone but Valanciunas” was available in trade. Leiweke even openly criticized the team’s composition. Change was on the horizon. It was obvious.
Rife with uncertainty but preaching patience, the 2013-14 Raptors opened the regular season the way they closed their last: in a battle against the Boston Celtics.